Southwest Florida climate survey shows divide between political parties as to causes, answers

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Most Southwest Floridians believe the climate is changing, and more than two-thirds say it is tied to human events, according to an April poll conducted by Lake Research Partners. 

Sixty-eight percent of the people polled said they believe the climate is changing while 23% said it was not, and the other 9% said they were unsure. 

The polling work was done at the request of Growing Climate Solutions, spearheaded by the Community Foundation of Collier County, the Collaboratory, Florida Gulf Coast University and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. 

Results are expected to be released to the public next week.

"These are our numbers," said Ana Puszkin-Chevlin, regional director for Growing Climate Solutions. "These are our communities. This is where their heads are at, so what are the strategies that work and are politically palatable to our neighbors."

The survey shows that out of 400 people surveyed, just more than half (56%) of residents say local government agencies should do more to address the changing conditions. 

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Climate experts, scientists and community leaders gathered in May at the SWFL Climate & Community Initiative Community Conversation Workshop at the Collaboratory.

A similar survey was conducted here in 2018, and comparing the results of each paints a political picture of the region. 

"What stood out to me is that it seems the numbers were a little more favorable toward the climate believers position in 2018 than in the 2022 survey," Puszkin-Chevlin said. "And in part I believe there is a lot going on in the economy; and in that moment that the survey was taken, that pulled attention away from the climate conundrum." 

Nearly 80% of respondents say local, state and federal government should do more to protect coastlines and wetlands, both of which provide protection from severe storms and sea level rise. 

But the overall percentage of people who believe the climate is changing actually dropped here between 2018 and 2022. 

"The numbers even dropped among Democrats, but what really stood out was the really pronounced difference in the number of Republicans that support climate action and their acceptance of data," she said. "Each camp has gotten further into their corner, (and) that isn't particularly great news because it's hard to find common ground when everyone is really entrenched in their corners. It's like a boxing match." 

Ana Puszkin-Chevlin

Puszkin-Chevlin said society now faces the challenge of convincing a significant portion of the public that climate change is real, and that actions should be taken to avoid further harm to the planet. 

"How do we make the message relevant to an audience that doesn't want to hear it,' she said, rhetorically. "This is something that's new, but solving the climate challenges is a unique opportunity. It can create lots of high-tech, good-paying jobs."

She said relatively high fuel costs have made some people more concerned about the economics of the near-term than the viability of the more distant future. 

"It's difficult because climate is connected to the energy issue and the energy issue is really weighing on people's minds because the cost of fuel," she said. "It's easy for people to say put climate aside and focus on energy independence." 

Growing Climate Solutions will host a local climate summit on Oct. 6. The event is being partly sponsored by The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. 

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani said he hopes economic incentives will help drive the private sector toward greener solutions here in the future, but that political gaps are worrisome. 

"I was disappointed to still see that some people still deny the concept of climate change and the science-based link to human causality," Cassani said. "Getting politicians to take meaningful and timely action will likely require a larger plurality in agreement on impacts and causes supported by science."

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.